Intimate Conversations with America’s Change-Makers

Burn the Boats is an award-winning podcast featuring intimate conversations with change-makers from every walk of life. Host Ken Harbaugh interviews politicians, authors, activists, and others about the most important issues of our time.

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Stuart Stevens: Fighting American Fascism

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Stuart Stevens: Fighting American Fascism

Stuart Stevens dedicated his life to getting Republicans elected. He worked for dozens of candidates, including both Bush and Romney during their presidential campaigns, and was extremely successful. Now however, Stuart regrets the part he played in the rise of Trumpism. In 2020, he wrote It Was All a Lie, about his time in the Republican party, and how Trumpism is “the natural outcome of five decades of hypocrisy and self-delusion.” His new book, The Conspiracy to End America, explains how the GOP is “dragging the country towards autocracy.”

In this interview, Stuart compares the U.S. to 1930s Germany, and the modern Republican party to those complicit in Hitler’s rise to power.

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Stuart Stevens:

And that's the weird thing about Trumpism. You think about all the social institutions in our country, sports teams, churches, boy scouts, girl scouts, boys clubs, girl. There's no part of our culture that says, “This is good. It's good to mock people.”

You get suspended from school when you get in fights. You should be. And yet, somehow that's acceptable. I don't get where the disconnect is.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

My guest today is Stuart Stevens, a former Republican and a senior advisor to the Lincoln Project. We had him on the show a while back to talk about why he left the Republican Party. And I asked him back today to talk about his new book, The Conspiracy to End America.

Stuart, welcome back to Burn the Boats.

Stuart Stevens:

Thanks, man. Thanks for asking me.

Ken Harbaugh:

Your last book, It Was All a Lie, I've got it behind me somewhere. That one made me angry. This one terrified me.

I'm guessing that was your goal, and I'd love for you to cover those five ingredients that fuel the autocratic movements. Then we'll dive into a couple of them.

Stuart Stevens:

Yeah. Well, thanks for doing this. The reason I wrote this book is that when you read a lot about how democracies fall into autocracy, and it's not an obscure subject people have written brilliant books on.

There seemed to be five elements that always were present. And we talk about, and write about, and discuss, cover, report, these five elements. But I don't think we do enough of their collective impact, both directly how they're connected and synergistically how they're connected.

And just to go through it, the five in no particular order of importance were support of a major party, which certainly Republican parties are autocratic movement now, what it is.

You need financiers, and God knows they have that out the wazoo, the Peter Thiels of the world and everybody else.

You need propagandist, which you look at Fox News, and Fox News has sort of become the New York Times of the far right. They're like the establishment.

You need shock troops, which we saw on January 6.

And you need (and I think this is probably the most important actually) a legal system to justify it. So, if Georgia passes a law saying they can overturn the presidential election popular vote, when they do it, you can't say it's illegal. It's like perfectly legal.

And that is where I think the most under-reported and potentially impactful efforts are being made.

We all know about the Federalist Society now, and I go into this in the book. And I was really struck, the Federalist Society began the weekend retreat in Yale in 1984 with the innocuous title, something like the Future of the Conservative Judiciary.

So, you cut now, and it's hard to say the Federalist Society didn't win.

And the guy who emerged to lead the Federalist Society, Leonard Leo, he was given $1.6 billion in the largest political contribution ever in America.

And that most of that money he is directing to various groups that are about the business of changing how we vote. It is a comprehensive effort.

It's led to a large degree by Cleta Mitchell, who was this once very normal attorney from Oklahoma, who actually led the movement for Oklahoma to pass the ERA. Who ended up sucked in the Trump world, who was in the Oval Office when Trump called Raffensperger.

I cannot imagine how she was not indicted. I suspect there's a story here.

And they're doing this comprehensive effort as much as they can below the radar screen, everything from training volunteers, (which our elections largely depend on) to electing election officials from Secretary of State to other election officials at the precinct level.

And she goes around holding these meetings and ostensibly they're supposed to be off the record, but because this is 2023, everybody has a recording, the recordings emerge.

And one of her standard opening lines is, “If you see a group that has democracy in its title or in its definition, these are not our friends.” So, you got to hand it to Cleta, she's kind of like putting it out there. It's no like sub diffuse. No.

And these are very serious people. And I think one of the weird dynamics is there's so many buffoonish people on that side. The Marjorie Taylor Greens, Lauren Boeberts, I might guess. That it's very easy to say these are a bunch of buffoons, but they're not.

And I think it would be very irresponsible to believe that it's inevitable that they will be defeated.

Ken Harbaugh:

I just reread for this interview that chapter about the legal underpinnings for any autocratic movement to succeed. And you open it with that quote.

Stuart Stevens:

No, it's incredible. Huh?

Ken Harbaugh:

It's unbelievable. And I reread that chapter in particular because I agree with you, that is probably the scariest of the five. I mean, that's saying something because shock troops are pretty scary as well.

But when you have a legal architecture that is propelling you in this direction, I mean, it's evocative of the legal justification. I'm going to break Godwin's law here, but the Holocaust itself had a legal architecture. That's the first thing they did. They made sure they could justify it legally.

And by the way, Mike Godwin said when it comes to autocracy in America today, his law no longer applies. So, I think we're okay.

Stuart Stevens:

Yes. Yeah, you get a pass. I actually think it's really important to talk about the 1930s.

And when I wrote It Was All a Lie, I mean, I originally started writing that book because I mean, there are a lot of people wrong about 2016, but it's really, really, really hard to find anybody more wrong than me. I didn't think that Trump would win the primary. I didn't think he'd win the general.

And when he did, I had a lot of these Republican friends said, “Ah, man like Trump hijacked a party.” And I'm like, “Guys, I don't know. I'd like to think that.”

But when the hijacker’s on the plane, he's not popular with the passengers. People aren't saying, “Well, I'm glad we're not going to grandma's house. We're going to go to Cuba.” And Trump's really popular on the plane, so I don't think we can really say hijacked it.

And I started asking myself the question, how did I miss this? I mean, I was right in all this. And then that old high school English teacher says, “If you can't write it, you don't understand it.” I started writing some, not to really intent to write a book. I ended up writing a book.

But when I was reading about trying to sort of go through this process of asking myself how I miss this, a book that still haunts me that I read were the memoirs of a Prussian aristocrat named Franz von Papen. Who probably more than anybody else was responsible for ushering Hitler into power.

So, in 1953, Franz von Papen wrote a memoir.

Ken Harbaugh:

Say that again. 1953.

Stuart Stevens:

1953, yeah. You could say things had gone a little sideways. A hundred million people dead, World War, Holocaust. And he was still trying to justify what he did, what they did.

And their justification is exactly as it was with the Republican Party. So much so that there are phrases that he uses that are literally almost verbatim from what Mitch McConnell said in 2016. “We'll be able to control him. We are more powerful. He will change, we will not change.”

And this justification for Hitler was really the same as the rationalization that so many Republicans went through to accept and particularly elected officials and kind of the hierarchy department to accept Trump.

And for von Papen, it was, “Look, we, the governing class of Germany, mostly Prussian aristocrats have lost shots with the working class.” Which was true. “And they are becoming communists.” Which was true. There was a huge Bolshevik communist movement in the 1930s in Germany.

And the only way that we can stop this country from going Bolshevik is if we have some connection to that. And the best connection to that that we have at the moment is Hitler.

And von Papen says, “Okay, didn't work out like we thought. But you have to say in that moment, we made that decision, it was the right choice.” And I can promise you that Mitch McConnell is going to say the same on his deathbed.

And if you read McKay Coppins, I think brilliant book on Mitt Romney that he just wrote, Mitt ruminates on this a lot. Rationalizations, how you come to rationalizations, and the role of ambition and personal rationalizations in politics. And it's really fascinating to read that section.

So, I think we have to talk about 1930s Germany. And when I look at all these people that I helped elect, some of whom became good friends of mine, I never in a million years would've thought they'd endorse Trump. Never. And they did.

Ken Harbaugh:

One of the striking differences, and I agree with a lot of the parallels you draw, and everyone should be reading von Papen, but he was representative of an aristocracy that had lost touch with the public.

You either wrote this or said this recently, that our greatest political divisions are not defined by class, but by choice.

And that, I don't know if it's entirely new in the history of political conflict, but I can't think of great examples of this kind of fractiousness driven by choice and not class, not any of the things that normally divide a polity. It's people deciding that they hate each other.

Stuart Stevens:

One of the interesting analysis that have been done a lot about those who participate in January 6th and had been arrested, and it's a fascinating study that … forget who did it, but a couple of academics did. I think they were at Hopkins.

And they have studied right wing movements a lot, which, I mean, you've done a lot of brilliant work on that stuff yourself looking at how the military have seen this.

And therefore was that these were middle class people, and that usually there is economic anxiety that drives these sort of a separateness that drives the fringe groups. David Koresh was like a guy who didn't fit into society.

Randy Weaver was a guy who wanted to be left alone, who kind of got hooked on these things. But he was not a fully functioning member of society. Went out and lived this isolated life in Idaho, which is how kind of the northwest has become like the Green Bay of the fringe militia movement.

They want to be left alone, a lot of them. So, that's why they always build compounds. They have a separate society.

But those for the majority who were arrested on January 6th were fully functioning members of society who were in the middle class. Some took private jets to overthrow the government because they were suffering so much. Roll that around your head.

And what is most troubling about that, these academics argue, that normally, the path to solve this problem, say, is by integration into society. That once people begin to feel that there's a path in society that accepts them, that gives them upward mobility, they're no longer mad at the world. But here, that's not the case.

And look, in 2020, the only economic group that Trump carried were those who make over a $100,000 a year.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm glad you said that. I was going to bring it up. It seems like the angriest Trump supporters are the ones who have everything.

Stuart Stevens:

It's very troubling. And it's utterly bizarre to me. And I say this not rhetorically, I literally do not understand it. There is this odd phenomenon in America of individuals who have prospered in America like they could under no other system on earth.

Elon Musk, the Koch brothers, Peter Thiel, and having Mark Zuckerberg increasingly so, they have decided that their reaction to this system that allowed them to amass unimaginable wealth and power is we have to end that system and change it.

It's very odd. I mean, it would be like Steve Jobs saying, “This Apple thing, we got to shut down.” Like it really just, I don't know.

And I find there are less dramatic ramifications of that to go through the whole donor class of Republican party.

So, after January 6th, there are a lot of corporate donors who say, “We're not going to give to those who voted against certification.” And probably 80% of them kind of held true to that, to 2020.

But the loophole in that is, okay, they don't give to nutjob congressmen, but they give to the Republican Congressional Committee, which then gives the money to the nutjob congressmen. Or they give to the Republican Senatorial Committee. It then gives the money to Ted Cruz.

So, it's kind of a moral laundromat that they can go through.

And so, you want to ask like would you rather be CEO in America or Russia? Like why is it you don't sort of understand what the Republican Party has become?

So, look at Ron DeSantis, this whole idea that Republicans were less government, less government interference, free enterprise. If Ron DeSantis gets in a fight with the happiness company, how in God's name does a Republican governor get in a fight with Mickey Mouse and lose?

So, what does the happiness company do? They cancel a billion dollar expansion they were planning for Florida, there was going to be 20,000 jobs with an average over $120,000 a year of salary.

And there's not a governor in America that if you said, “I want you to walk naked from your house to the state capitol, and Disney will move to your state,” they'd ask, “What's the catch?” Like, “Can I leave now? Where do I sign this deal?”

But it's a reflection. So, the personal freedom party, which is what I thought the Republican Party was (stupid me), they now believe that it's a deep, egregious, unfathomable violation of personal rights if you're asked to wear a mask.

But for a 12-year-old girl who's raped to be forced to carry her rapist child to term, that's not a violation of her rights. How do you square that?

And which just goes to my point, I do not think that there is a conservative party in America.

Ken Harbaugh:

I think one of the explanations of that fealty to Trump in defiance of not just all the evidence, but where he is actually taking the country, is this observation you make that Trump quoting from the book, “Has made it acceptable to embrace your worst self.”

“I think that permission structure is so liberating for so many of his supporters. And once that becomes acceptable, it's very easy. It's, I think, sort of addictive.”

This must have been an interview you did, “And now that's where the party is. It's become a grievance party and primarily a white grievance party.”

Stuart Stevens:

Yeah. I mean, it's like saying, “Without a doubt, you'll be more healthy, you'll lose weight if you eat a lot of chocolate.” It's like, “I want that deal, man. Like where do I sign? I'll take it.”

And I get into this argument all the time with the few Republican friends I've left, because I really believe ultimately this is all about race.

And he goes, “So, I voted for Donald Trump, I'm a racist?” I go, “No, but it means you care about something more important than having a racist as president.” Because you can't argue that Donald Trump isn't a racist. It's impossible.

And I find this fascinating because I worked for Romney. We lost, by the way, but Mitt Romney would've led the party in a very different direction. And I think people have a better sense of that now because they've had a better sense of who Mitt Romney is, but it would've been the same party.

So, what does that tell us? I think it goes to the question, why in the 1930s when America had a huge fascist movement, did we not become fascist? Probably because Roosevelt was president and not Henry Ford or Lindbergh.

And you've written about this, talked about it a lot, addressed it in your film, maybe what we learned in civics class, we still had them, this leadership matters was true.

So, now, I see it as a complete collapse of the Republican Party because I think there are a lot, a lot of people out there who always felt Trump was kind of weird. Like this sort of fat guy from Queens, talks about having sex with his daughter. This is just weird.

But then their governor, who they know, their Republican governor, their Republican senator or Republican congressman, they endorsed Trump.

So, it's kind of a thing, “Okay, look, that person knows Trump better than me. He must be okay.” So, that's a permission structure that's given.

And one of the things that I kind of went through as an intellectual whatever, of what if. I worked for Bush in 2004, we won the popular vote. The only time since 1988, Republicans won the popular vote. But we always realized we were very lucky to win the popular vote.

So, if a good bit less than a full stadium at a home game at Ohio State to change their votes, we would've lost. Would've lost Ohio, would've lost.

So, what if John Carey … if you remember on election night in 2004, Bush did not declare victory until the next day. And we knew that we'd won, but it was still close enough that theoretically, if every provisional vote that was out there went against Bush a hundred percent, you could make a case to Carey might win.

Now, not every provisional vote's going to go. It was impossible. “But okay, fine. Like we'll wait a day.”

But what if Carey had gone out and said he won, refused to accept Bush winning. What would've happened? Well, play it out.

The Democratic party wouldn't have stood behind him. I mean, these senators and democratic congressman, they wouldn't have gone out and said, “Well, we don't know who won.” They would've been calling Carey and saying, “Are you out of your fucking mind? You're ruining the party. You're killing us. You got to concede.”

And all the media that had endorsed him, New York Times, Washington Post, they would've called for his head, “We withdraw our endorsement. This is one of the more devastating terms of American politics. This has ruined John Carey's legacy. If there's any hope left for …”

And that's not what happened in the Republican party. That's not what happened with the media that endorsed Trump. They all stood behind Trump. And all they had to do was (these Republican elected officials) get their comm shops to put out a statement saying, “Congratulating the President-elect United States.”

I mean, to defend democracy, I mean, what have you seen and what have you done to defend democracy? A hell of a lot more.

What of people like my dad, fought three years in the South Pacific, $28 landings, came home, never talked about it like hundreds of thousands of others. That's the legacy these Republicans inherited. And yet they can't even get their comm shop to say congratulations.

I find it appalling. I am extraordinarily judgmental about it. I think that they're cowards and failures. I think they're going to be recorded as such in history.

And I don't care that I think 99% of them would be really good neighbors. They passed you on the road and you had a flat tire, they'd stop. These aren't bad people, but they failed this moment.

Ken Harbaugh:

Indeed. And you place that moral burden, it seems entirely on this party, the Republican Party.

I'm wondering if there is something though about modern conservatism itself, if there is a sensibility within the movement that lends itself towards authoritarianism, towards excusing anti-democratic behavior.

And I ask because America's Republican Party isn't the only conservative party that suffers from this. All around the world today, you have rightest movements, conservative movements that are reacting in much the same way. And I don't think we can ignore that pattern.

Stuart Stevens:

Yeah, a hundred percent. It's a fascinating question. I would say the answer in America is democracy became the enemy. Because in a world that is changing as rapidly as America is …

So, 1956, Eisenhower gets 39% of the black folk. That drops to 7% and 64 with Goldwater when he opposed the Civil Rights Act.

Now, you could have made a case that a lot of African Americans would drift back to the Republican party because of shared values of patriotism, social conservatism, faith, entrepreneurship. It didn't happen.

Trump got 8%. So, that's one point every 56 years. I mean, do the math, it's going to take a while to get back to 39.

And Ronald Reagan, 1980, wins a sweeping landslide with 55% of the white folk. John McCain, 2008, loses a not particularly close race with 59% of the white folk.

And therein lies the story. What is democracy? Democracy are people voting. If you believe that then leads to your defeat, you become anti-democratic if you're unwilling to change.

And that was a great failure of the Republican party when I was in it, but at least we admitted it was a failure to appeal to more non-white votes. And we're becoming a minority majority country.

In some cases, one way you could say we already are a minority majority country. Those who are 16 years and under are non-white. I'm betting on the odds they'll be non-white when they're 18. And Republicans know this, and that's why they're trying to curate the vote. So, you change.

So, you look at Hungary. Okay, it's not about race, per se, in Hungary, though part of Viktor Orban's rise to power has been a fear of non-whites.

Ken Harbaugh:

It's about immigration, if not race.

Stuart Stevens:

About immigration, which are non-whites. I mean, and Viktor Orban has said, forget the exact quote, but mixed races, “We do not want a country of mixed races.” He said this before he was invited to give the keynote address at CPAC. Wrap your mind around that.

But I think it is a like failure of democracy. And in a parliamentary system, as was the case in Germany, they're not winning with a majority, they're coming to power with a minority.

And this is one of the encouraging things about the recent Polish elections. That they were able to defeat this despite a lot of odds against them. A lot of state-owned media that was spreading a lot of lies.

I think autocracy is driven by fear. Democracy is driven by hope. And I think that's a fundamental difference.

If you read the Declaration of Independence Constitution, it is an aspirational document. It's a hopeful document. It's not an accurate description. All men were not created equals, but it puts something that we should aspire to.

And that was always the role of politics in America, to be successful, usually the most optimistic candidate won. And it was true consistently.

And with Trump, that really changed. And a major party adopted fear and hate as its platform. And once you do that, it's very hard to unravel.

And you know what I find so, so extraordinarily (I don't know what the word is) depressing or telling. The one group of Americans who really do have grievance, who really do have a right to not believe in the American system, are African Americans.

They were enslaved, tortured, murdered, killed, raped, laws passed against them to stop them from participating in the American system. And yet they never gave up. They didn't seize the capitol, they marched in Washington. So, I respect that. I have no respect for these others.

And personally, I have zero desire to understand the guy in the Camp Auschwitz sweatshirt. I don't care. I don't need to read another piece about Trump voters and diners. I don't care.

And I think there is a sort of extraordinary reluctance among the journalism class in America, of which to some degree, I'm a member, (I write more than most of them and largely a lot of my friend group) to call out this for racism.

And to me, it's sort of like assigning the best reporters in America to go to strip clubs and try to figure out why is it that men go to strip clubs? This is baffling. Well, maybe it's because they like naked women. And I'd say the same about Trumpism.

Ken Harbaugh:

So, conservatism, at least in its modern form, seems to be about preserving a social order, not preserving democracy. And I think that is where the anti-democratic impulse comes from.

You talk about fear of change, you talk about inherent racism. If we play that out and suggest that the conservatism of these parties around the world might have to be undemocratic in order to preserve the social order, it explains a lot.

Stuart Stevens:

I think that's get on and brilliant. And you see it play out what is happening in Russia, but the creation of a mythical pass that you're in love with, which when you say make America great again, what has that been a mythical pass? And it's basically a social order that you knew your place and you are unquestioned.

And a social order in which as Putin says, and every everybody knows this to be true, there are no gays in Russia. I mean, everybody knows that. There are no women in power in Russia. They're all good Christians.

Although if you think Putin's a Christian, you're insane. And there's millions and millions and millions and millions of Muslims in Russia.

It is a world in which elections are performative, not determinative. And I think it's very true.

And that's not a theory of government. What is it? It's a … I don't even know what you would call that instinct, but it's not a governing philosophy.

I mean, say what you will about Elizabeth Warren. You can talk to her. She has a theory of government. You can love it, you can hate it, but she'll argue and she'll be brilliant. And you can make your case.

Listen, man, I worked 30 years at a Republican Party conservative side. You said like, “I'm going to hold a gun to your head. You got five minutes to describe American conservatism today.” I'd say, “Shoot me. Let's just get this done.” I have no idea. I mean, I don't think anybody else is.

Ken Harbaugh:

Why do the better angels never win? There are still old school conservatives. We used to call Glenn Youngkin, one of those. But as you've pointed out, when he went to Arizona to campaign for Kari Lake, he didn't change her, she changed him. And now, we see a different Glenn Youngkin.

Stuart Stevens:

Yep. It's because to rise in the Republican party, you have to pass a purity test, which is increasingly, the barrier for that is high.

Look, why is it that all these people I worked with, for the most part, not all … I mean, listen, I wrote a book about the Bush campaign in 2001 called The Big Enchilada.

And I predicted in that book that someday Liz Cheney would run for president, because I worked closely with her in debate prep for her dad. And she was so impressive. So, it doesn't surprise me that Liz has held true. It doesn't surprise me that her dad has held true.

And if you ever want to have a podcast just about Cheney, I'll be glad to make sure that I'm the second most unpopular person in America and defend Cheney.

Mitt Romney held true. They're out there. But why did my friend Chris Christie, a guy I worked in all these races, love him, sat in his living room, talked to him about running for governor when he was attorney, why did he endorse Trump?

When I wrote all this, It Was All a Lie and started doing interviews, I would get asked questions like that. And I found that like I would just get emotional. I would just choke up. I couldn't answer it.

I mean, I remember vividly standing in the Atlanta airport watching Christie endorse Trump. And like tears came to my eyes. I felt like I was watching a friend overdose. Like, “Chris, what have you done? Why? What do you get out of this?”

And so, now, he's saying what he always believed, but like, why Chris? I mean, the guy tried to kill you in 2020 in debate prep with COVID. He waited till January 6th to try to kill Mike Pence. Hell, man.

Again, in this McKay Coppins book, he ruminates a lot on this and asked himself, when are there moments when he thought ambition drove him to do something he really didn't believe?

I mean, this is why I ended up writing a book about the Republican Party called It Was All a Lie. Because if you really believe this stuff, you don't change. Those aren't values, they're marketing slogans.

If you say character counts, and then you support Trump, I mean, it's like remember there used to be this slogan Chevrolet's the heartbeat of America. Well, you didn't really believe you should take your car to a cardiologist.

And that's how the Republican Party view these values. We call them values. I mean, some of us believed in it.

There's a little group of us. I mean, we literally used to sit in the same room. Me, Nicole Wallace, Matthew Dowd, the late great writer, Michael Gerson, who wrote so many beautiful speeches and then became a op-ed. Pete Wehner, who writes The Atlantic now. Mark McKinnon, who is a circus.

We believed this stuff. And it wasn't like we thought we were perfect, but we aspired to be something bigger and better than we were. And we look at Trump and it's like we were wrong.

Ken Harbaugh:

Is there any hope of recovering it?

Stuart Stevens:

You got to get out of this crazy … next you're going to say you want to be drafted in the NFL here, dude.

Ken Harbaugh:

On one hand you say that you have to stop imagining that there is a possibility for the Republican party to become normal again.

On the other hand, and I think this is the optimist in you, you say that, “There is hope, if it suffers crushing defeat after crushing defeat (I like that) then just maybe it will begin to change.” Reading from the book. “And return to some semblance of a normal center right party.”

Is that just you coming up with a way to end your book? Because what happens now?

Stuart Stevens:

Here's what I think. I think there are millions and millions and millions of Americans who would like to identify with a sane center right party.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah.

Stuart Stevens:

And there isn't one in America. Now, the only vehicle for there to emerge one is the Republican party to change. You're not going to start a third party that's going to be successful in America.

Ken Harbaugh:

Fair enough.

Stuart Stevens:

I mean, this is my logic, the only way the Republican party is going to change is by defeat. So, you could have said there's some principle, some moment that the Republican party will come to its senses.

But to me, so you take January 5th, Mitch McConnell wakes up, he's majority leader, wakes up on January 5th, 2021. Wakes up January 6th, he's minority leader. And he and his colleagues are running for their life.

So, in life as humans, if somebody organizes a mob that then comes into your office and tries to kill you, and you still support that person, do we really think there's some principle they're going to come across where they're going to … “I don't know, man, this stuff about like the law of the Sea treaty. That's too much. I've had it. I'm out of here.”

No, if you're willing to support the guy who tried to kill you, you're going to support him to the last dog dies, as Bill Clinton would say. And that's just the reality. I mean, and I don't think we've seen anything like it in American politics.

Now, I do think that there is a sort of fascinating moment in the Democratic Party where there was a time when the Democratic party, to a large degree was the party of strength and foreign policy. Nixon, Kennedy. Nixon accused Kennedy of having a secret plan to invade Cuba. I mean, he ran, turned out he was right.

Nixon in many ways, ran to the left on foreign policy of Kennedy. Kennedy ran on a missile gap.

And in the Vietnam War, for the most part, that changed. And the Republican Party became the party that was defined by Ronald Reagan standing in front of the Berlin Wall saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” So, who's the anti-Russia party now? Democratic party.

Now, Donald Trump would stand in front of that and say, “Tear down this wall so we can join you.”

And I think that there is this, which goes to kind of the sociality you're talking about, I think a lot of conservative Americans without really thinking about it much, because most people don't think about this stuff. They look at Putin and they see a world that they kind of like in Russia.

Like I said, no gays, no women, no troubling. They don't know anything about it. They don't know abortion's the number one birth control. But still, hey.

And I think that goes to a lot of the anti-Ukraine efforts.

But there's also just one little through line we never talk enough about. I don't know why. I mean, because he's so like insane.

Russia decided they wanted to elect an American president. They did. Donald Trump won. Now, you could argue whether or not Donald Trump would've won without Russia or not. But as somebody who spent 30 years winning and losing elections, more winning than losing, totality in politics is the hardest thing to point to.

So, if you want to put me up in front of the Oxford Union and debate decide that Donald Trump would not have run without Russian interference, I'll do that. And I'll win that debate. I may not be right, but I can make a really good case for it.

Not the least of which is, it was a massive covert operation. And one of the aspects of covert operations is you never really know what they did. So, they got elected president. So, what did they get? Turns out they got a lot.

The leading pro Putin element of American politics is now, the part of American politics that used to be the greatest antagonist, the conservative element of Republican party.

It would be the equivalent of, say, instead of the Soviet Union getting a group of aristocratic traders in the British government in the ‘40s, ‘50s, Kim Philby, you've got Churchill. Now, how would that have played out? Most successful covert operation in history. It's got to be.

I mean, can you imagine you're sitting in those rooms in the FSB headquarters, Prigozhin being one of them, and you're designing this. I mean, I don't think there's enough vodka in Russia to think that they would've accomplished what they accomplished.

They would've said, “Well maybe we'll do this. Da da.” They got the presidency. And right now, if Donald Trump wins, it'll be devastating for Ukraine, devastating.

Ken Harbaugh:

For all of Europe, eventually.

Stuart Stevens:

For all of Europe, for Western society. If you want to drive from Paris to Warsaw, you better do it now because in five years, if Ukraine loses, you're not going to be able to.

Ken Harbaugh:

I want to talk about political violence. We all point to January 6th as a-

Stuart Stevens:

And your a brilliant film.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thank you. A crescendo of political violence, the likes of which we've never seen. But obviously there was a lot that led up to that.

And to me, the approval, the endorsement of political violence coming from political leaders now, not just the apologies for the January 6th insurrectionists, but the performative violence of people like Markwayne Mullin. I don't know if you saw him stand up at this senate hearing.

You've got Republican members of Congress assaulting each other in the halls that happened on the same day.

And I know it seems like a massive leap to connect that to January 6th. But the desensitization that we've experienced, the threshold has been so lowered that violence from a sitting senator-

Stuart Stevens:

Yeah, I mean, think about it. I mean, I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. The dispute that used to be settled out behind the crystal in the parking lot after the Friday night football gamer, now that's happening in the United States Senate.

And most of us thought you were an idiot if you went out there and settled it behind the crystal. We were 16.

There's been a long Republican principle, we ought to reduce the size of federal government. Okay, we never did it, we just increased it. But say that.

So, now, how does DeSantis verbalize that? Not, “Do we need to reduce the size of the government?” “We need to slit their throats.”

How does DeSantis articulate his opposition to Fauci policies, though he endorsed Fauci policies until he got a poll saying it wasn't good for him in his space. Not, “I disagree with these policies, I don’t think we need it.”

Somebody ought to throw that little elf across the Potomac, which is particularly ironic, and considering that get DeSantis in his bare feet, and he's only a couple inches taller than Fauci. And I'm not sure Fauci couldn't talk to DeSantis.

And if you listen to the debate the other night, it was childish. It was like my daddy can beat up your daddy. There's competition who could be the most bellicose? Who could be the most angry? What country?

I swear to God, the next debate, I promise you, V. Ramaswamy's, going to be talking about invading Canada. He went up to the Canadian border, where from where I'm sitting, I can ride my bike to Canadian border about half an hour.

And let me tell you though, I do it a lot. The northern border's looking good. There's not a real problem here with like Canadians are going to drive massive numbers of their Lexuses over the border for Vermont, New Hampshire.

Ken Harbaugh:

We don't need a wall?

Stuart Stevens:

I mean, it is a normalization of violence that is an integral part of an autocracy.

And when you listen to what Republicans have said now, about what they were being told by their colleagues, that they had colleagues who wanted to vote for certification, but were afraid for their lives and their families.

Mitt talks about this. And I mean, Mitt’s a guy spending $5,000 a day in security, and most people can't afford to do that.

I know when Liz Cheney was running for reelection, her campaign, her ability to move around in that state was greatly hindered by a realistic assessment of threats. And that's not a democracy.

If you can't vote the way you want to vote because your fear that the other side may kill you, that's not a democracy. So, that's become acceptable.

And there's a really fascinating book by this Canadian journalist, I forget his name. Stephen Marche, I think it is.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah, we've had him on.

Stuart Stevens:

Deposits that America is in the Civil War. And one of the points he makes, what's the difference between January 6th and Fort Sumner? Well, nobody died at Fort Sumner. Not a bad point.

And he goes through the degree to which people thought the Civil War was unimaginable, even after Battle of Bull Run. It's a very compelling book.

As a seventh generation Mississippian named for J. E. B. Stuart, I kind of take it personally. But we sort of tried this. Didn't work out too well.

Ken Harbaugh:

Stuart, you're chuckling. And I want to use that to tee up my next question because in figuring out how to push back against these clownish macho performances in these provocations towards violence, one of my reflexive tools is mockery and satire. And I'm wondering if that works anymore.

How do we push back against this movement that celebrates tactics that are antithetical to democracy when that same movement seems to be immune to the emotion of shame.

If Trump has any superpower, you've talked about it being the identification of the weaknesses in others. I think his supreme superpower is a lack of shame and that seems to infect the entire party.

Stuart Stevens:

Yes, you can. I can't tell you how much I miss shame. I wake up every day wondering where it is.

I do think, (and this is really what the Lincoln Project is all about) I do know for a fact that there is a group of voters in America, of which that is still a hugely motivating factor.

And the single most effective tool that we found in the Lincoln Project, when we're focused on that five to it's growing. But 8, 9% now post Dobbs group of call them soft Republicans (some are soft Democrats) who many of whom voted for Trump in ‘16 at the last minute after the Comey letter, who enough of them voted for Biden in ‘20 for him to win.

And the single most effective way to reach these people is to ask them, is this who you really are?

To hold up a Marjorie Taylor Greene screaming at somebody, to hold up a Donald Trump, to hold up a guy in a Camp Auschwitz sweatshirt, to hold up this buffoonish senator from Oklahoma getting out of his seat to get in a fight. And I mean, give me a break.

Is this who you are? Is this what you teach your kids?

Trump made a huge miscalculation in the suburbs in ‘20 when he tried to scare white voters in the suburbs by the threat of non-whites moving in.

And you know a lot of people who live in the suburbs, you might live in the suburbs. I don't know anybody who lives in the suburbs, who if someone who was non-white or different religion moved in next door, they wouldn't go out of their way to show their kids that they're welcoming.

That's who they want to be. And that's who they want their kids to be.

And if I ran the Democratic Party, God help us, I would wake up every day to get in a cultural war because I do think Republicans are losing these cultural wars, which is a function of shame.

So, when Republican Party went to war with Nike over Colin Kaepernick, who won? Nike made 9 billion and the Republican Party shut the up about it. And I think there's shame in elements of that.

When the Republican party went to war with NASCAR because they banned a Confederate flag, who won that? Well, think about it, Republican party in a cultural war with NASCAR.

When they went to war with Walmart over Walmart's mandatory mask requirements for a while. I don't know, last election, last Tuesday, Republicans didn't do too well. I bet Walmart's had a good day that day. I bet they sold a lot of shit.

And so, I think they're losing these cultural wars and that's a reflection of being out of step with America.

But what we increasingly have for many, many reasons is minority rule in America. This is partly a function of our constitution with the US Senate having two senators in every state. So, the disparity between the size of the states when that constitution was written was much, much smaller than it is now.

So, larger states are getting larger, and that's just going to continue. They're still going to have two senators

There are five United States justices in the history of America, Supreme Court justices, who have been confirmed by senators representing a minority of the country in their votes. And all five are on the court today. You have a president and Trump who lost over 3 million votes.

I worked for Bush, we lost a popular vote by half a million. We used to darkly joke amongst ourselves. It seemed kind of funny at the time. Anybody can win a race when you get more votes. It takes professionals when you lose by half a million.

It seemed kind of funny. It doesn't seem very funny anymore. It probably never was funny.

And as a side note, if you ever want to do a podcast just on this, I'll come on and do it. We don't talk enough about what a hero to America Al Gore is.

Ken Harbaugh:

For conceding.

Stuart Stevens:

Yep. If ever there was a guy who had a moment to rip apart America, it was Al Gore.

And as I understand from a lot of his people whom I've gotten to know, the first thing he told them after the decision was, “Don't trash the Supreme Court.” Because He thought that was more important than him winning that election. Where did that go?

And Bush would've done the same. I know, I was with Bush. I think there's a side of Bush that was hoping he'd lose at that point. I think it was probably a side of Gore that said, “Just get this thing over with.”

So, I do think shame still works with that.

This is a problem Republicans have. Nobody wants to be Jim Gordon. Nobody likes these people. They're weird. They're people you don't want to sit next to on a plane. I mean, you see Marjorie Taylor Greene on a plane, you like, “Ah, man, like I'm just going to keep walking down the aisle.” They're not likable. And that's a huge thing.

And there's a party without attractive leaders. So, Glenn Youngkin would … so, look at who's running now for president. There's some sort of likable people up there.

But then what do you do when to be considered you have to say that you would vote for a guy if you lose the nomination, you'll support him even if he's convicted of overthrowing the governor of the United States? That's a pretty disqualifying statement.

And you think like Nikki Haley. I wrote an article from New York Times about this before she announced. If Nikki Haley had stayed who Nikki Haley was, she would really have standing to say what she's saying now, as would Chris Christie.

But she didn't. She won't say that Donald Trump was a disaster. And so, this is what Trump's winning.

I mean, think about it. You're in a race, what greater gift could you be given against your opponent than him to be convicted of a felony to overthrow the United States government? And yet you won't campaign against him saying that.

Well dude, you're going to lose. I mean, I'm telling you, that's the truth. That the Republican party is where Donald Trump is.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, I hope you're right that there still are those in the middle for whom shame can be a motivator. You're also right that some of the structures are fundamentally democratic.

It's the only way we can get a senator, Markwayne Mullin, who by the way, after that shameful display in that Senate hearing went back to Oklahoma and I am sure high fived dollars buddies.

He's on camera saying that that's the only thing he could have done to be a man. And he gets away with it.

Stuart Stevens:

Yeah. My feeling about those guys when they do stuff like that, they should be required to fight somebody. They should. Maybe not Bernie Sanders, but there ought to be a pool of people of which I bet everybody you know would like pay money to rig the pool to be number one in that pool.

That if you're going to go out and say this stuff, you … it's like Elon Musk, he's going to challenge Zuckerberg. There ought to be you say that stuff, okay, there should be a fight.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. Especially when you're challenging a teamster. That was my favorite part of the whole exchange. I think we all know how that would've gone down.

Stuart Stevens:

Yeah, I'm kind of betting. As a parent, would you teach your kid to do that? You're going to call out your teacher.

And that's the weird thing about Trumpism. You think about all the social institutions in our country, sports teams, churches, boy scouts, girl scouts, boys clubs, girl. There's no part of our culture that says, “This is good. It's good to mock people.”

You get suspended from school when you're get in fights. You should be. And yet somehow that's acceptable. I don't get it. I don't get where the disconnect is.

Ken Harbaugh:

Stuart, I want to end with an observation that you've made on many occasions that I think is the most important thing to remind ourselves of going into 2024, which is that autocrats find a way of using our freedoms, our liberties to kill democracy.

Your thoughts on that, and then I'll let you go.

Stuart Stevens:

Yeah, no, I mean, it's absolutely true. They use freedom of the press to kill freedom of the press. They used a ballot box to take away the vote. It's true in the court system.

There is this nutty theory that state legislature should have the right to overturn any vote, not just presidential vote.

As the original electors, this extension of the electors, we're not going to elect presidents by popular vote. We're going to elect electors. We're going to have smart white rich people go and status going to be president.

So, there was a test case in front of the Supreme Court recently, and it went down six to three. And there was a lot of sort of celebration about this, this lost. But it's like, guys, I don't know, three people in the Supreme Court think that that's the law.

You're a lot further ahead than you were in 1984 when you had this little cozy symposium at Yale on where the future judiciary is. They didn't have three people in the Supreme Court to support that.

So, I don't think that we can count on the judiciary alone to defend us. I am a hundred percent convinced that if Mike Pence thought that he could have gotten away with it, he would not have done what he did.

I mean, so what does that mean? What is the main extension we have to exercise those freedoms is to vote?

And this is the great hope of America. And I am hopeful about this. It was with young people. When I was coming up in politics, there's one truism, was that young people don't vote in large numbers and they are now. And Biden's best group, the oldest guy ever elected president in 2020 was under 30 voters.

And you look at Arizona, Kari Lake did lose, she lost by like 17,000 votes. Why? Go look at the precincts around the colleges and universities. She was getting beat 85 to 15 in large numbers. If that had been 60, she would've won.

So, I think that that is very hopeful. And immigrants, America's history being saved by our immigrants.

Ken Harbaugh:

I probably need to stop you there, Stuart, because that is the first hopeful note we've had. And I like ending on the upstroke. Thank you so much.

I share that hope. I think we're going to win in 2024, but we need to be scared. And if you need nightmare fuel, this book will do it. It's motivation more than fear.

Thanks so much, Stuart.

Stuart Stevens:

Oh, thanks, Ken. Thanks for everything you guys are doing.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks again to Stuart for joining me. Make sure to check out his book, The Conspiracy to End America. The link is in the show description.

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We're always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more, follow us on Twitter @Team_Harbaugh. And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to rate and review.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.


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